What do Stephen Colbert and an ancient Greek political satirist have in common?
After taking the advice of a professor to pursue any topic that interested her, junior Ella Wisniewski decided to answer that question in a research project on political comedy.
That simple suggestion from Collin Meissner, an assistant dean for undergraduate studies, during a Glynn Family Honors Program seminar set her on a path that included a trip to New York, adding a second major, and embracing learning for the sake of learning.
“In class one day, he said that if you’re trying to find a research project, just think about something that’s interesting or an experience that you want to have, and then turn that into research that you can do,” Wisniewski said.
“Every day at Notre Dame, I grow in my ability to analyze and interpret and think of things from perspectives that I might not necessarily have — and that’s definitely a skill I used when I was conducting my research.”
So Wisniewski turned to comedy, something she watches frequently for fun, and developed an academic project that compares an early use of political satire to current political comedy.
After deciding on Aristophanes, a playwright of ancient Athens, she looked for someone close to him in content or structure, eventually settling on Stephen Colbert.
“I narrowed it down to one specific person from the past and one specific person from the present, and I started looking at not only historical parallels but the way that themes were reflecting across millennia,” she said.
With funding from the Glynn program, Wisniewski traveled to New York City in 2019 to attend a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and take a tour of NBC Studios.
“I can’t go back to ancient Greece to watch a play, so I read a lot of primary sources, but it was really nice to have those hands-on experiences to look at the modern political comedy aspect,” Wisniewski said.
The final product of her research, a paper titled “Aristophanes and Colbert: A Case Study in Comparative Political Comedy,” highlights two timeless topics she found in the work of both political satirists — bathroom humor and critiquing politicians.
“It was a challenge at first to draw the two together because it’s hard to separate the time period from the work, but after you strip down material for a while, you get to its base elements,” she said. “I found that people — throughout history and now — love bathroom humor and that there’s also this big focus on getting politicians to acknowledge you because once they do that, you’ve already won.”
Later that year, Wisniewski added a second major in English, largely inspired by the Glynn seminar she took with Meissner. Wisniewski loved the structure of the class, reading everything from The Odyssey to young adult novels.
“It made me realize how much I enjoy reading, writing, and engaging in discussing in class as opposed to just being in lecture rooms,” Wisniewski said. “My majors in English and economics are a really good combination of bigger classes where you’re learning more facts and methods and smaller classes which are more discussion and opinion- or argumentation-based.”
Wisniewski will eventually write a senior thesis but, for now, is exploring fields and topics of interest, including her renewed passion for creative writing. She joined the Creative Writing Club as a first-year, will serve as its president in the spring semester, and is now considering how her pursuits there could influence her research.
“With doing more creative writing, I've definitely thought about adding that element to my thesis,” Wisniewski said. “I think it would be really cool to come up with an idea that weaves together satire and some sort of narrative.”
Pursuing research early in her academic career was an incredibly worthwhile endeavor, she said, that taught her a lot about her personal process and perseverance.
“Every day at Notre Dame, I grow in my ability to analyze and interpret and think of things from perspectives that I might not necessarily have — and that’s definitely a skill I used when I was conducting my research,” she said. “The experience just reaffirmed how much I like the research process and finding knowledge for the sake of knowledge and for the sake of creating new things that are interesting.”